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Little Boxes, big sales, huge plans

Local stores' two-day event counters Black Friday, touts quality


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - SpielWerks Toys owner Stacee Wion shows off a quality-made bow and arrow set, made by Portland woodworker Brendan Budge. The North Williams shop and others participating in Little Boxes sell unique goods, many of them made locally and others procured from around the globe. Organizers hope for a big shop local turnout. Next week, a large number of us will — either eagerly or grudgingly — take part in the mob scene of holiday shopping known as Black Friday.

Heading out to stores for big sales the day after Thanksgiving has become a national obsession, with some stores announcing they’ll open their doors at dinnertime on Thanksgiving.

Portland has a better way.

For the third year in a row, the city’s small retailers hope to entice shoppers to patronize the city’s “Little Boxes” — locally owned small shops — instead of the big-box stores on Black Friday and Black Saturday, Nov. 29 and 30.

Nearly 200 Portland businesses are participating this year, up from 170 last year and 90 the year before.

Shoppers can explore any of the 16 neighborhood shopping districts across the city: Alberta, Beaumont, Broadway/Hollywood, Division/Clinton, downtown/West End, East Burnside, Hawthorne/Belmont, Kenton, Mississippi/Williams, Montavilla, Multnomah Village, North Portland, Northwest Portland, Pearl District, Sellwood and St. Johns.

Here’s the lure: Shoppers can download a Little Boxes iPhone app (or pick up a paper “passport” at one of the stores) and for each shop they visit, enter the raffle to win a travel package, an iPad, massage session, shopping spree, hotel package, restaurant gift certificate or other prizes from local sponsors.

Purchases at the stores allow bonus raffle entries. And a purchase at one Little Boxes store unlocks a 10 percent discount at the next store.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Jeanna Andros Baker, shop manager at Jet Clothing on North Mississippi, helps Anna Reed try on the Barcelona dress. The clothes here are locally designed and sewn.  Shop owners say it’s created a great synergy between the small business community. They know what each other’s shops offer, and can send customers across the street for something they don’t carry instead of telling them to look online.

“It’s all about community — a great way to get people to see what Portland can do,” says Jeanna Andros Baker, shop manager at Jet Clothing, on North Mississippi Avenue.

Her shop will participate again this year to draw awareness to their brand. Their line of sustainable women’s clothing is designed and sewn at a site just four blocks away from the storefront. The dresses, tunics, skirts, tops and leggings are made from organic cotton, bamboo, soy and hemp fabrics, many of them hand-dyed.

They’re ultra-soft and luxurious — and some might say ultra-spendy. Dresses run in the $150 to $200 range, but you get what you pay for.

“You’re not going to walk into Nordstrom and find something someone made four blocks away,” Andros Baker says. Women feel good when they buy clothes at Jet, she says. They can know they’re supporting a small, local, sustainable business.

And they can feel confident and comfortable in their clothes all day long. As Andros Baker is fond of saying: “Rock your body at whatever point it’s at, because it’s not gonna get any better.”

Not far away, SpielWerk Toys on North Williams also caters to shoppers who appreciate quality over quantity.

There are no hot trendy toys here; they sell rock science kits and imagination-powered toys like silk cloths and wooden clamps for fort-building, handmade wooden swords and shields, and slingshots made from reclaimed wood.

Many of the products are curated from across the globe. And they’re working on selling more that are made right at home.

The shop collaborated with a Portland woodworker, Brendan Budge, to develop a bow and arrow set — made from local hemlock, fir and walnut, and real feathers. Budge consulted with an old-time bow maker to come up with the design, and it looks and feels magical — like it was made in Santa’s workshop. The set sells for $63.

Many will scoff at the pricetag. But SpielWerk owner Stacee Wion, who has four kids of her own, says there’s a huge payoff. Kids won’t leave a $63 bow and arrow set out in the rain.

“These are toys, but they’re meant to last a lifetime,” she says. “Weaponry teaches nobility and caretaking. The quality is an exchange of meaningfulness.”

Little Boxes started in 2011, while Portland and the rest of the United States was still trying to pull out of the recession.

Small-business owner and jewelry designer Betsy Cross and her husband, Will Cervarich, came up with the idea a few weeks before Thanksgiving that year.

They rallied several fellow shop owners to agree to affinity discounts, pool funding to create a print and web presence, and solicited donated prizes for shoppers.

Since the program’s inception, they’ve grown the event from one day to two days, and fielded questions about the Little Boxes economic model from storeowners across the country. This year, organizers expect about 20,000 shoppers to visit the participating Little Box retailers. Last year they collected 16,000 raffle tickets from customers in nine hours of shopping.

Venture Portland, the city’s association of neighborhood businesses, plans to survey local merchants to track sales and foot traffic resulting from Little Boxes.

Wion and other shop owners have faith people will support the Little Boxes concept, and it’ll be the start of a movement.

“We’re resetting a mind-set,” she says. “It’s big corporations that have created this mindset that cheaper is better. Here it’s about quality, knowing your craft. This is just a town filled with people who know their craft.”

Little Boxes runs 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 29 and 30; visit www.littleboxespdx.com for details.